Ornamental Delights

Christmas is a time for giving…. so, I’ve dusted the cobwebs off another item from my writing basement – again, something that I wrote when I was in Germany…

German Christmas Ornaments

They sparkle, they glitter…they come in all shapes, sizes and colors.  And for most people, they’re what makes every Christmas tree unique:  glass ornaments.

Since ancient times, people have brought evergreen branches and trees into their homes in the middle of the cold, dark winter as a symbol of everlasting life and health, and as a talisman to ward off tragedy and evil.

The custom of decorating these greens, using apples, nuts, cubes of sugar, cookies, wafers, and other home-made treats started in the late 16th century — about the same time that glass blowers in the quaint German town of Lauscha, in Thuringia, were making a name for themselves as exquisite and superb craftsmen.

As the story is told, the very first glass ornaments were created in the mid-1800s by a Lauscha glass blower who was too poor to decorate his Christmas tree with real fruit and nuts.  So, he created fruit and nuts — out of glass!

The key to this development was the invention of the internal silvering process, which enabled glass blowers to create a shiny, almost mirror-like surface inside the blown-glass shape by using a non-toxic silver saline solution.  It’s a process that is still used today. The outside of the ornament was then painted in various colors and decorated with materials like metal foil, wax, or paper.

Around 1880, something else happened that would change the future of these exquisite glass creations — forever.  An American merchant by the name of F.W. Woolworth spotted these marvelous glass creations in Germany.  He took such a fancy to them that he took some back to the United States to sell to his customers in Pennsylvania.  The glass ornaments — in the shapes of stars, angels, trumpets, Nikolaus, and other shimmering forms — were a big hit.  And by the turn of the century, Woolworth was importing 200,000 of them to sell at his five-and-dime stores.

Ornaments displayed in a storefront in Lauscha Photo/Kathleen Saal

In the years that followed, Lauscha’s world-wide popularity and reputation in the Christmas ornament market continued to grow.

Although much of the ornament production was automated during Lauscha’s days under East German rule, today glass blowers at privately owned companies are again making ornaments according to the traditional and time-honored method —- by hand.  Of the estimated five million glass ornaments made in Lauscha each year, roughly 60 percent of them are for export.  One of the town’s biggest customers?  The United States — over a century after Mr. Woolworth first visited the town.

Many of the wooden molds used to create the very early ornament shapes, are used now to inspire newer – yet still nostalgic – shapes and motifs.  If you counted all the various ornament shapes and designs existing today, you’d find about 10,000 — in every shape, size and color imaginable.  Some of them cost as much as $100 each.  They range from the traditional and ever-popular round ornament to those that look like icicles or birds, stars, churches, teddy bears, and Nikolaus, Santa Claus or Father Christmas.  More unique, but less traditional, are ornaments shaped like Bugs Bunny and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which can be found on contemporary Christmas trees in the U.S.

For something truly different, there are even ornaments shaped to look like watermelons, pumpkins and – yes – garlic bulbs and plain brown potatoes.  With a bit of luck, you can even find glass ornaments shaped like those fruits and nuts of yore.